Let’s agree to agree

AgreementHere’s a basic test: which sentences below are correct and which incorrect?

  • They is red.
  • You are happy.
  • I were ready on time. (notwithstanding certain dialects in parts of England)

You would easily have picked only the second one as being correct, because people know that a verb has to agree with its subject, even if they don’t know the terminology for this. The problem with the other two sentences is that the number of the subject does not agree with the number of the verb. In the first sentence, the subject is plural ‘they’, which requires the plural verb ‘are’. The third sentence has singular subject ‘I’, but an incorrect plural verb ‘were’. This is fundamental grammar that people know intuitively about their first language.

No problem, right? Not so fast. These examples are easy, but it rapidly gets complicated; I see errors of subject–verb agreement all the time.

Separating subject and verb

The problem is often that the subject is separated from the verb by a whole swag of extra information. This makes the subject phrase very long, and writers find it difficult to keep the mental connection between the subject and its verb. Here’s another basic sentence:

  • ‘The artist cleans the brushes’.

The subject (The artist) appears exactly before the verb ‘cleans’, as is usual in the basic grammatical structure of English. And now with extra information:

  • ‘The artist wearing the spattered smock with the yellow sunflowers cleans the brushes.’

Now the verb ‘cleans’ is coming right next to a plural noun ‘sunflowers’, which can tempt writers to use a plural verb ‘clean’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage calls this ‘attraction’ or ‘proximity’.) However, ‘sunflowers’ is not the subject of the sentence and does not govern the verb. The subject is still ‘The artist’, which requires the singular verb ‘cleans’.

Compound subjects

Another problem happens with compound subjects, as in this example:

  • *‘Improvement and expansion has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’

There are two nouns here, making this a compound subject that requires a plural, not a singular, verb. This should read ‘Improvement and expansion have changed …’

One exception to this happens when the two items are considered to be a single unit, so they take a singular verb.

  • ‘Fish and chips is my favourite meal’.

Another exception is when the second noun is connected to the first by ‘with’, ‘as well as’, ‘in addition to’, ‘except’, ‘together with’, ‘no less than’, ‘or’ or ‘nor’:

  • ‘Improvement, as well as expansion, has changed the methods used in each section of the department.’
  • ‘Each dot or dash is required to be in red.’

When writers combine these two techniques – adding extra information to the subject and using compound subjects – it can get even more confusing.

  • *‘Frequent assessment of the worth of the paintings and ongoing monitoring of surveillance and protection systems in the building is important to maintain.’

Now we have a compound subject (assessment and monitoring), each with additional information (‘of the worth of the paintings’ and ‘of surveillance and protection systems in the building’) and the last noun before the singular verb is the singular ‘building’. But here the verb should be the plural ‘are’.

Other specific examples of subject–verb agreement are as follows:

  • Use a plural verb in a sentence such as ‘One of the artists who have exhibited in the city.’ (note: an exception here is when you want to draw attention to the uniqueness of the ‘one’ element: ‘One of the best artists who has exhibited in the city.’)
  • An indefinite expression such as ‘A range of options were available’ takes a plural verb, but when the definite form is used, make it singular: ‘The range of options is limited.’
  • Use a singular verb after ‘each’, ‘either’, ‘everyone’, ‘everybody’, ‘neither’, ‘nobody’, ‘someone’:
    • ‘Both artists work prolifically, but neither is rich.’
  • With ‘none’, use a singular verb if ‘none’ means ‘not one’, but a plural verb if it means more than one:
    • ‘None of the artists is rich.’
    • ‘None are so beautiful as those with confidence.’
  • Collective nouns: Some nouns that look plural function as singular items: ‘Politics is not a game.’ (Winston Churchill); equally, some nouns that look singular take plural verbs: ‘The police were notified.’ Note there is some geographical variation here between British and American use.

The topic of agreement takes up more than two pages in Fowler’s, which means there are basic rules with many different instances of applying them, exceptions to these rules, geographic variation of these rules, and – as if that weren’t enough – a little bit of stylistic interpretation thrown in, based on the sense rather than the grammatical form of the sentence. Remember also that subject–verb agreement is one of those areas where conversational habits are very different from formal writing habits. Many people say ‘There’s two games on this weekend’, but you don’t want to write ‘There’s two ways we can go forward’ in a report to a client.



Burchfield RW. 2000. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Revised 3rd Edition. Oxford University Press. Oxford.
Snooks and Co. 2002. Style manual for authors, editors and printers, 6th edn, John Wiley & Sons, Milton, Qld.
Strunk W Jr and White EB. 2000. The Elements of Style. 4th Edition. Longman. New York.
And the image: http://www.etsy.com/listing/90585987/victorian-brooch-of-women-shaking-hands.

The paramedic method of editing

In June, I attended the Society of Editors (Qld) meeting in temporary HQ at Thorn St, where we were students in an editing first aid course delivered by paramedic Karl Craig. The course, ‘the paramedic method’, is based on Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose¸ a book first published in 1979 and now in its fifth edition.

Karl edits PhD theses, a genre in which 20,000 words of information can be crammed into 80,000 words of text, so it was clear that this paramedic editing is a skill he is necessarily practised in. He was introduced to the method when he began editing, around 10 years ago, and he described it as the sort of work most editors do intuitively.

The method is designed, as the book title explicitly says, for revising. It is not designed to help a person extract, syllable by syllable, the gossamer ideas from their heads to become print on the page. Nor is it designed for fiction, which must spend time building worlds for the reader, who must be serenaded into the story.

This method is a ‘direct assault on the “Official Style” ’. It’s short. It’s sharp. It’s straight to the point. It translates official style into plain language.

It’s not new, of course, as Karl pointed out. People have been lamenting the padding out of official language for years. In 1946 George Orwell wrote Politics and the English Language, an essay that decried the ‘contagion’ of unclear prose permeating the political language of the day. He said that ‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’ The BBC television show Yes, Prime Minister made hay with this idea, as illustrated by Karl’s example where Sir Humphrey’s phrase, ‘the precise correlation between the information you communicated and the facts insofar as they can be determined and demonstrated is such as to cause epistemological problems of sufficient magnitude to lay upon the logical and semantic resources of the English language a heavier burden than they can reasonably be expected to bear’ turns out to mean ‘You told a lie’.

After this and other fine examples of language labouring, we got down to the nitty gritty by talking about the characteristics of ‘Official Style’:

  • It hides the actor and the action in the passive.
  • It displaces action from simple verbs into complex constructions.
  • It uses Latin words when Anglo words would do.
  • It adores the slow wind-up – the long, introductory phrase.
  • It loves to add prepositional phrases.
  • The words are inflated and embellished; it is euphemistic.
  • It takes up twice the space of an equivalent plain language explanation.

When occurring together, these characteristics of official style result in a curdled mess of meaning, quite suffocating under its own weight.

But how to administer first aid? Apply the paramedic method:

  1. Circle the prepositions (of, in, about, for, onto, into)
  2. Box the ‘is’ verb forms
  3. Ask, ‘Where’s the action?’ (who is kicking whom?)
  4. Change the ‘action’ into a simple active verb
  5. Eliminate any unnecessary slow wind-ups – make a fast start
  6. Mark off the rhythm units in each sentence with /.
  7. Mark off the sentence lengths with \.
  8. Read the piece aloud with emphasis and feeling.

When you’ve tried this method you’ll be able to derive a scientific index of just how bad it was: the lard factor. To determine the lard factor of a given sentence, apply the paramedic method to excise some words. Divide the number of discarded words by the original number and times by 100. This tells you how much of the original sentence was unnecessary to communicate its message. Karl told us that a lard factor of 50% is typical in most official writing.

He said that over years of converting ‘Official Style’ to readable material, he has found that plain English has its own characteristics:

  • active voice
  • reduced prepositional phrases
  • things do things to things
  • verbs instead of nominalisations
  • no long noun strings
  • pronouns that relate to their antecedents
  • parallel structures
  • important words at the beginning of sentences
  • subordinate ideas in subordinate clauses.

And with that we wrapped up our oxygen masks and put away the mannequins, having graduated from paramedic editing with a neat little checklist to back up our intuition in times of maximum complexity of emotional disturbance caused by the confluence of ever-approaching deadlines with dwindling time resources … er, stress.

Acknowledgement: this article was first published in the June edition of Offpress, the Society of Editors (Qld) monthly newsletter.

Dangling modifiers

Misplaced modifiers, like the omission of a FANBOY comma, can lead you up the garden path. The problem is that you think you are saying one thing, and the reader thinks something else entirely.

A modifier says something extra about something. So in the phrase ‘the red car’, the word ‘red’ modifies the word ‘car’. Modifiers are usually adjectives (the red car) or adverbs (she sneezed loudly), but whole phrases can function as modifiers.

Introductory modifying phrases modify the subject of the main clause. For example: ‘Walking in to the hospital, patients will see the admissions desk first.’

Who is walking in to the hospital? The patients.

The example in the photo above is the same structure, but something is wrong. Two things that can go wrong with modifiers are that they can be misplaced or dangling. A misplaced modifier is describing something other than what the author intended to describe, but something which is present in the sentence:

The woman signed the paper with the pale face.

The phrase ‘with the pale face’ should be modifying ‘the woman’, but because it’s closest to ‘the paper’ it sounds as if the paper has a pale face. This should be:

The woman with the pale face signed the paper.

A dangling modifier is one that isn’t present at all in the sentence:

While walking in to the house, the telephone rang.

This sounds as if the telephone was walking into the house. But there’s a missing agent here: who was walking into the house? A person, presumably; the point is, the modifier is left ‘dangling’ because it can’t find anything to attach itself to. Let’s supply the agent:

While walking in to the house, the woman heard the telephone ring.

In the example in the photo above, the question is: Who is a family company? And the answer according to the way it’s currently written is ‘the eggs’. This should be re-written to read: ‘Being a family company, we ensure these eggs are produced …’.

Here are some links to more information about dangling and misplaced modifiers: